Review Summary: Rilo Kiley's fourth album moves them into a new more accesible direction but ultimately falls short due to a lack of direction
There comes a time in the career of every band when they must stand up and be counted, a time when a band needs to make a record to really cement their place within their scene and prove their worth. Generally speaking this happens around the third or fourth record, no serious band can make the same album forever despite what the punk scene would have you believe. What is Rilo Kiley’s new direction? Well they’ve gone pop amongst many other things. In truth the only thing recognisable from past albums are front women Jenny Lewis’s vocals. Instrumentally this is a vast departure, albeit a relatively unsurprising one considering that the two principle song writers in the band, guitarist Blake Sennett and the aforementioned Lewis, almost ghosted this album on their two solo albums released in between the previous Rilo Kiley record, More Adventurous, and this.
Musically there is a lot to take in on Under the Blacklight’s eleven tracks; stylistically it traverses so many genres whilst remaining rooted in a poppy tone. The obvious flow problems this presents exist in abundance as does the lack of any real direction to the record. It feels like a greatest hits or a b side’s album at times which hurts the record as a whole. That said individually there are some real stand out moments which compare very favourably against any of the bands previous work. Predictably far and away the finest thing about the record is Jenny Lewis’s vocal performance. The women has a mighty fine set of pipes on her, effortlessly moving between blues, gospel and indie whilst always retaining her unique voice, which for newcomers is how any typical indie girl would sounds if she were raised in the deep south.
Perhaps the greatest example of what “Under the Blacklight” represents is the uncomfortably themed “15”. Blues guitar licks weave their way over a laid back rhythm section, before bursting into a majestic chorus with a hook as a big as any your will hear this year. When Jenny Lewis combined with The Watson twins the release her solo record she described it as “A kind of white soul record.” Personally I’d say she was a little premature and said description is far more befitting of the material on “Under the Blacklight” that of “Rabbit Fur Coat.” There are shades of Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin all over this record and although Jenny holds little on the seminal vocal performance of those two legends, their fingerprints are everywhere and let’s be honest, there aren’t many better singers to base your vocals on.
The song writing is far more expansive in its approach and where as on previous records they were all inclusive, all the time, almost so no-one was ever left feeling abandoned, here the music is giving time to breathe and it feels far more natural for it. Nothing is forced with the songs, which is a sign of excellent writing. As with Lewis’s vocals there is a very eclectic approach instrumentally. From the dancy jive of “The Moneymaker” which sounds like Madonna circa the 1980’s to the rhythm and blues infused closer “Give A Little Love” and the country twinge of “Under the Blackout” (which could easily be a Lucinda Williams number), it seems Rilo Kiley have attempted to cast their lot in with nearly every popular style on the radar, with nearly universally positive results. However a good album is not merely a collection of songs, it is a cohesive unit with flow and a common direction and this is where the album falls short.
Furthermore the band has moved on lyrically. Whereas previous works where focused on trendy political themes or intelligent and introspective efforts, Lewis has moved onto it seems less personal influences. This takes something away from the band; in the past the lyrics represented a darker edge in an otherwise upbeat indie pop band. Take those away and there is a great void left in the band’s music. The new approach fills this adequately but it far from excels in this department.
Under the Blacklight is like the sequel to a fantastic cult movie. It’s more ambitious, it cost a lot more to make and it will no doubt make a lot more money but something is missing here. It’s all just too safe for Rilo Kiley, where as some bands rise to the challenge after time away from making music together Rilo Kiley have created something which, although enjoyable, is all too predictable for them. There is maturity in abundance and Lewis’s vocal performance is astounding but there is just no edge to “Under the Blacklight.” This is a band going through the motions in every sense of the phrase. Don’t get me wrong, Rilo Kiley going through the motions is still pretty good. You don’t have a voice so suited for this as Jenny’s is and not create something worthwhile, but nevertheless this is a letdown. In their almost desperate search for a new sound the band has lost the kookiness and even darker element to their music. There is nothing wrong with a great slice of pop music and Rilo Kiley does it fantastically. Here’s hoping that maybe in two years they will make more of a traditional album and less an unrelated collection of songs.